Contemplation: On Freedom of Speech

Here in the United States we almost tend to take for granted the rights provided to us by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights which reads

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is a powerful amendment that ensures that citizens of this nation are provided the freedom to express themselves and their ideas without interference of government.  In many ways it is easy to assume that the “freedom of speech” as provided in the First Amendment is vital to the very function of our Democracy.  But truly is freedom of speech all that simple?

Stanley Fish, perhaps one of the greatest living critical theorists, takes on some ideas in regards to freedom of speech and recent Supreme Court decisions.  I don’t feel like going into a lot of discussion in regards to the Supreme Court decision 1) because I am not a lawyer or legal historian who can weigh in much on whether it is precedent or not and 2) because likely any opinions I have, have already be exhausted elsewhere on the vast Web.

Instead I want to think about freedom of speech itself and what it means, and whether, regardless of what our Constitution says, we actually have it (borderline blasphemous perhaps, but a point worth discussion).

When we talk freedom of speech we are really addressing more complex philosophical issues of freedom and free will.  Basically considering whether or not we have any freedom whatsoever.  But freedom of speech brings it down to a social and political level.  It is a matter of legality.  Does a person have, or not have,  the right to express their ideas, opinions, beliefs, etc.?  This is what we are considering when we are looking at the First Amendment.

The assumption, and understanding, here in the United States, tends to lean toward the idea that we do have this freedom to unhindered expression. However we should realize that there are certain catches in regards to it.  Just because we may be “free” to say what we will does not necessarily mean that there are not potential consequences for our expression.  People may be tried for slander and libel against others.  We could lose our jobs for disclosing company secrets.  Too vocal an opinion on certain subjects could put us at risk of alienation from our friends and family.  Basically, when it comes down to it, the freedom is there but with limitations (which raises the question of whether freedom is really freedom when there are limits).

Interestingly I think that the one thing that may most inhibit our freedom of speech is our own ethics and consciousness.  Many of us may have beliefs, ideas, questions, etc. that we regulate on a daily basis so as to avoid unwanted repercussions that may occur for violating various social norms.  This is nothing enforced beyond what we apply to ourselves.  Consider swearing for example.  A lot of people never – or very rarely – do swear, not because there are any laws that prohibit it, but because they choose not to. But does the freedom to this kind of speech still exist in these cases?  Essentially yes, because there is no outside force restricting the speech if it is so desired by the individual.  It is that “outside” force that is really important.  We are able to freely regulate ourselves in regards to our speech, but it should be us alone.

So what about matters of defamation like slander and libel?  If people are charged with crimes for such speech has their freedom been interfered with?  I suppose the answer to that question would depend on which side of a defamation case you happen to be on.  Essentially defamation laws are saying that certain types of speech and expression are not protected by “freedom of speech” but the reasoning for this is that these types of speech constitute causing harm to others (and yes, defamation is unquestionably harmful).  In that the speech is harmful to others it is made illegal.  Rights given to citizens can be constrained in the sense that the right is available as long as it is not used to impede upon the rights of others.

So what about at the workplace?  How can an employer “dismiss” someone for their expressions?  Because the employer has the right to set limits as to what is acceptable behavior, and while an employee may certainly have the “right” to say certain things, if these expressions violate acceptable behavior than the employer has every right to dismiss an employee.

When we talk freedom of speech in the sense of the First Amendment we should think of it first and foremost as being present to ensure that we can actively express political opinions and ideas without fear of being locked away by the government.  Beyond that the freedom of speech can give us any number of other opportunities, some we may all consider standard fare and other we may think of as horrid (think flag burning, a lot of people would like to see that made illegal, but should it be considering freedom of speech?*).

When we talk about governing and law there is nothing easy about the concept of freedom or freedom of speech because for laws to work there needs to exist certain restraints.  These restraints can be instituted in any number of ways.  The general idea of American Democracy is that by taking part in elections we choose our lawmakers and allow them to enact various constraints.  If we do not agree with certain constraints then we will likely try to vote for other lawmakers.

In the real world it seems that matters like freedom of speech are more of an ideal than a complete and actual practice.  Our Constitution then may just protect the ideal rather than the actual practice there of.  The system may not be perfect, but in comparison to other countries  we’ve got it very good (Just lookup Google and China right now and you’ll see what I am talking about).

Freedom of speech is what allows me to sit and write the posts on this blog.  Does it mean that any of my ideas or opinions are right or wrong?  Nope.  All it means is that I can feel confident that as long as I am not slandering anybody’s character or trying to use this blog to orchestrate sedition or treason, my expression will be protected by law.  As it stands I feel pretty good about the  whole thing.

*Note: In regards to flag burning in the country.  While I myself would never want to take part in the act I see no reason to prohibit it.  Sure it is disrespectful to our great nation, but keeping it legally protected by freedom of speech  just further proves what is great about the United States, that basically being that even if you hate this country with all your heart, if you are a citizen this country’s laws will protect your expression of that hate.  Really, keeping it legal makes the whole flag burning thing kind of ironic.  On another point, while I love being an American citizen, I do not think it is necessary that we treat our flags as idols.  Yes they are potent images that represent our nation, but in truth they are merely symbols and the sacred status we adhere to them is not really all the necessary.  Hey, I’m just expressing my freedom of speech here.

~ by Nathaniel on April 7, 2010.

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